The Discovery of Piranesi's Final Project
Stephen Lauf



The Discovery of Piranesi's Final Project

Stephen Lauf



Curious and interesting work.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Calcographie des Piranesi



As it turns out, Giovanni Battista Piranesi already wrote a description, and a review, of his final project. The short text appears within the Calcographie des Piranesi, a catalogue listing the existing and projected works by Giovanni Battista and Francesco Piranesi, des Piranesi, published by Francesco in Paris, 1804, almost sixteen years after his father's, Giovanni Battista's death, and less than six years before his own death.

ANCIENT CIRCUSES.1
Plans, details and division of the Circuses
Maximus,
Caracalla,
Eliogabalo,
Flaminius,
Flora,
Nero,
Salust,
Hadrian, still unpublished.
The Circus of Caracalla
2 being the best preserved, we will give the geometric and perspective details, the various restorations, the bleachers, the enclosure around which the chariot race took place, the boxes intended for the magistrates and the emperors. (The latter often took pleasure in racing themselves, driving a quadriga, four-horse chariot); the enclosure from which the chariots left. Besides the ornaments, etc., the bas-reliefs will also be mentioned, in order to make known more positively the uses and the manners adopted for the race. Curious and interesting work.
One volume containing 120 plates
One volume of explanations.


Only three etchings related to the so-called Circus of Caracalla exist within the Piranesis' oeuvre: a detailed plan of the circus with notes and dimensions by Francesco from circa 1786 labeled 'Icnografia del Circo de Caracalla fuori della Porta Capena in oggi S. Sebastiano,' and an unsigned and undated site plan labeled 'Pianta degli avanzi di un 'antica Villa, sue Fabbriche, e Circo volgarmente detto di Caracalla fuori di porta S. Sebastiano,' existing in two printed states3. Francesco published all three etchings almost a decade after Piranesi's death 9 November 1778. Francesco's 1786 plan appears within a volume of his Opera varie, and the two versions of the unsigned circus site plan appear separately as addendums within post-1787 editions of Le Antichità Romane vol. 1, along with two plans of the Palatine hill's Palace of the Caesars signed by Francesco, 1787. Complications already in abundance, but at least we know that all three plans depict what Piranesi considered "curious and interesting work."



Francesco Piranesi, 'Icnografia del Circo de Caracalla fuori della Porta Capena in oggi S. Sebastiano' in Opere varie (Getty Research Institute), circa 1786.


The completeness of Francesco's data-full circus plan strongly suggests the culmination of extensive field survey work carried out to record every possible accuracy. The two unsigned circus site plans likewise exhibit accuracy as to the correct positioning and geometry of the discernable ruins throughout the site, which also suggests the culmination of extensive field survey work, yet at the same time the two unsigned drawings register incompleteness, if not also obscurity. And in terms of inaccuracy, the only real fault of all three plans is their identification as the Circus of Caracalla (emperor from 198 to 217); the correct identification of the Circus of Maxentius (emperor from 306 to 312) did not occur until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.



1. The second part of Calcographie des Piranesi, ou, Traité des arts d'architecture, peinture et sculpture : développés par la vue des principaux monumens antiques et modernes comprises the descriptions of three large proposed works: Antiquities of Magna Graecia, now Kingdom of Naples; 21 vol., Antiquities of Rome, built from the time of Kings, Republics and Emperors, down to Constantine; 35 vol., Antiquities of Preneste; 21 vol. Ancient Circuses was intended as two of the 35 volumes of Antiquities of Rome. The author first became aware of the Ancient Circuses text 6 June 2022.
2. The Circus of Caracalla was correctly identified as the Circus of Maxentius by Antonio Nibby circa 1825.
3. The author discovered two states of 'Pianta degli avanzi di un 'antica Villa, sue Fabbriche, e Circo volgarmente detto di Caracalla fuori di porta S. Sebastiano' online 29 May 2022. A first state printing of the site plan exists within the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg copy of Le Antichità Romane vol. 1. A second state printing of the site plan exists within the Getty Research Institute copy of Le Antichità Romane vol. 1.




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